Friday, January 22, 2016

The Work of Christmas


Just when you thought the feasting of the holidays was over, we have come to worship God today and found an all-you-can-eat buffet of spiritual food. Our plates are filled with the promise of restoration, the baptism of Jesus, and the promise of the Holy Spirit – and it’s not even Lent, let alone Pentecost! And even while we load our plate with these delicacies, we know we must save room for the impact of ordaining Church Officers and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet that is communion.

That’s a pretty full plate, and yet these ideas and experiences are all important for the nurture of our faith. No matter where we are in our walk of faith, we always need to be fed and encouraged – for there is work to be done. We have lives to live for the glory of God, and we have a certain freedom from sin that needs to be experienced and shared in order for it to be real. This is what Howard Thurman called, “The Work of Christmas”.

"When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart."

It is true that the Christmas season has passed, and with it the work of preparation was gathered into bags of spent wrapping paper. The work of putting away decorations may or may not be finished, but that is not the work of Christmas. The work of Christmas is God’s project of restoration that we are invited into through the baptism of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.

That is why our readings begin with God’s promise of restoration for the people of Israel. While the Prophet Isaiah certainly had a particular vision of what it meant for God to restore Israel, we tend to broaden this promise when we hear it. Truth be told, we are more likely to assume this vision means that we will replace them as God’s beloved. For our purposes today, I think the central teaching and the power behind this text is found where God says in v. 4 “you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

God is talking to the people of Israel whom God has covenanted to love – and essentially to love them more than anyone else. For God said, “I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.” Yet we know that this covenant has been broadened through Jesus Christ so that all may be included. And we see God’s radical inclusion in the story of God’s acceptance of those dastardly Samaritans. The Samaritans were the ones who attempted to set up an alternate temple to the one in Jerusalem – not just as another option, but as the central conduit for God. They were understood as the example of self-serving faith. They were not just “outside of the covenant”. To the Jews, the Samaritans represented the rejection of God’s covenant.

And it is to these people that Phillip went to proclaim repentance and mercy and forgiveness – and even they could understand that! Of course they could. Who wouldn’t? And because of them, we can hear God responding to our fears over those that we believe to be unlovable. And God says, “Yeah. I love them, too.” Because of this story about the power of the Holy Spirit we can hear God speaking to us when we feel unlovable, broken, and lonely by saying, “Yeah. I love you, too.”

We see this love expressed most clearly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And today we celebrate the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, because it is the beginning of our ministry as well. The ministry of Jesus began with baptism, and so our ministry as followers of Jesus begins with our own baptism. Even though we don’t actually “see” Jesus’ baptism in Luke’s Gospel, it is clearly the baptism of John that calls for repentance. What’s also interesting is that the Holy Spirit comes afterward, in response to prayer. Likewise, with the Samaritan believers, the Holy Spirit is received through prayer and the laying on of hands. In both cases, it is not the effectiveness of the prayers that cause the action of God. Instead, it is the aligning of their wills with God’s will that allows them to experience God’s active presence.

What’s important here is that the baptism of Jesus starts a new thing. Before Jesus, baptism was a recognition of human actions. After Jesus it has become a recognition of what God has done. Before it was a baptism of water. Now, in the words of Will Willimon, “The baptism of Jesus, is with water and the Spirit as a sign of God's presence and activity…Jesus is the sign of the presence of God. God's Spirit rests on him. The Spirit testifies to all the world who Jesus is…The Holy Spirit permeates the Christian existence, begins the Christian's pilgrimage, and leads us daily, tugging at our lives until they be fully turned toward God.”

So it is with our church officers this day. Today we will elect and install individuals who have been tugged by God to turn more fully toward God. Truly we do this as an expression of the belief that God is tugging on all of us together, and that it is through these leaders that we may come to understand how best to serve God. Electing Ruling Elders to govern our shared life of faith and Deacons to encourage our care of others is what makes us disciples of Jesus who are also Presbyterian. Being part of the PC(USA) anchors us in the reformed tradition of faith, and it extends our ministry to people and places we could never impact on our own.

And so we talk about the Holy Spirit of God as “indwelling” throughout the church and present in our relationships. We see the activity of God through the willingness of spiritual leaders and the work and worship of our community of disciples.

Yes, the work of Christmas has begun, and it is here in this place that we come together to experience conflict and reconciliation so that we can say to the world, “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!” For we have been baptized – and we offer a baptism – that not only includes the Holy Spirit of God but even the fire of purification.

Maybe you were hoping I would skip that part, but John promised a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire that would burn away the chaff – the part of the wheat that was not useful. While it may be that God will separate people individually into those who have behaved or performed well and those who have not, I think there is a more practical application for the idea of the wheat and the chaff. It seems to me that as we grow and age, God constantly removes from us those things that keep us from experiencing God’s presence.

Whether we choose to see it or not, God is in the business of moving us evermore toward a more perfect reflection of God. I don’t mean to say that God is some bizarre, cosmic, narcissist. I mean that we are created in the image of God, and that God is constantly perfecting us so that we may reflect the character of God. So that even you and I can help

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

This is the work of Christmas that has now begun. Our Officers will encourage our work, but certainly it is our great joy to reflect the heart of God together! To that end we are called, tugged, made pure, gathered, and formed by the Holy Spirit as a people of God. Amen.
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